Blog Article was written by Dr Rita Bissoonauth, Head of Mission at the AU/CIEFFA and Anoziva Marindire, Communications Officer, AU/CIEFFA
The African Union International Centre for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA) is seizing the opportunity of the African Union’s 2021 theme on “Arts, Culture and Heritage: levers for building the Africa we want" to rethink the process of teaching and learning STEM through arts, culture and heritage for African girls.
As the world continues to see an increase in global health pandemics like the COVID-19, impacts of climate change, and the emergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is a growing need for the African continent to support and invest in getting girls and women into the STEM fields. The continent is in urgent need of increased human capital to lead alongside other global players in the research and development of new technologies and vaccines.
African girls and women have been an important missing element of STEM studies and careers for decades. The gender inequalities that exist in the STEM field are often attributed to social and infrastructural factors, lack of a female support system in the field in the form of role models and mentors, and lack of awareness of job opportunities. Other studies have attributed the gender disparity in the field to traditional mindsets of computing as hard and boring, and only for the boys as a major reason why girls and young women do not consider taking up STEM in school.
According to UNESCO, women constitute only 35% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students in higher education, and only 3% choose information and communication technologies (ICT) studies.
Leveraging on positive elements of African art and culture, and moving from STEM to science, technology, engineering, art, and science (STEAM) could help the African continent bridge the gender gap that exists in the STEM fields. It is through incorporating culture and the arts that we can show girls that STEM gives them opportunities to be creative and create new cultural narratives that make STEM an option open to girls.
During the AU/CIEFFA 5th High-Level Dialogue organized in partnership with Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNESCO, Save the Children, UNICEF and the Permanent Delegation of Norway to the African Union in early February, an 11-year-old girl from Nigeria, Adanna Nwagagbo, gave a touching speech that highlighted not only the importance of getting girls in school and taking up STEM but also the role that art and culture can play in getting girls engaged in STEM.
“We are either covertly or overtly discouraged from studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses because we are girls. We are advised to focus on the ‘simpler’ subjects; leave the heavyweight subjects to the boys, they say…….. I enjoy singing because singing is a means of expression for me. It is an art. I believe that arts and culture can enhance understanding, catalyze critical thinking and improve learning. They can bridge the gender divide and help people appreciate each other and their diversity,” she said.
The arts are not always recognized as a vital component of 21st-century learning yet they are fundamental in preparing children with the skills they need to be well-rounded thinkers and can be used as a tool to advocate for the importance of inclusion and diversity in STEM.
There is an urgent need for African countries to review their curricula in STEM in order to develop competencies such as design thinking and creativity, which are often missing in STEM and move towards STEAM. Approaches to addressing gender inequalities in STEM education must be learner-centred and culturally responsive, incorporating culture and art in the context of gender and identity.
Studies have shown that stereotypes on gender roles stem from childhood, even in families promoting gender equality. According to UNESCO, there are two predominant stereotypes with relation to gender and STEM – “boys are better at math and science than girls” and “science and engineering careers are masculine domains”.
This shows that to encourage girls to take up STEM, the focus should be on the impact that girls can have through STEM first, with less focus on gadgets and technical toys. Making STEM real, contextual, and relevant to their everyday experiences can support girls’ interest and success in STEM.
In the absence of tech infrastructure to spur girls' interest in the fields of STEM, educationalists can adopt and adapt traditional African games and African art and heritage to spur girls' interest in pursuing STEM-related studies, a suggestion also made by Hon. Elise IIboudo Thiombiano, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism, Burkina Faso.
“Components of Art, culture, and heritage such as tales, educational games, music, geomancy, moulding, pottery, basketry, and the use of our mother tongues, if introduced earlier, can facilitate and strengthen the teaching/learning of STEM in particular for girls and young women in education systems,” the Minister said.
These components of art and culture bring forth real-world scenarios that provide girls and young women the context that allows them to see the value that STEM can bring to their work and also make STEM studies more vibrant, encouraging their academic interest in the field.
As we move to STEAM education especially in light of COVID 19, African countries must prioritize the adoption of gender-sensitive policies in education and the promotion of girls and women uptake of STEAM studies since women constitute more than half of the continent’s potential workforce.
Ms Alice Albright, the CEO of GPE, highlighted the importance of investing in girls’ and women’s education and the uptake of girls' STEM studies by African girls and the social barriers holding them back when she spoke at the AU/CIEFFA 5th High-Level Dialogue.
She said “Unlocking the future we want begins by investing in the generation that will build it, and this must include more girls. Investing in girls' education to increase girls’ participation in STEM education is not just the right thing to do, it is a smart investment.”
Africa must take the opportunity arising from its bulging youth population and invest in the education of its young people, especially girls, with a focus on promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics if it is to achieve its plan to transform into the global powerhouse of the future.